Tu b'Shvat - Seder, History and Traditions
Tu b'Shvat is a minor Jewish holiday that it's fair to call "Jewish Arbor Day" since it is one of the traditional 4 new years in Judaism, and it's dedicated to trees, emblems of the natural world. In fact, its alternate name in Hebrew is Rosh HaShanah Lallanot, meaning "Head of the Year of Trees."
Historians believe that the holiday traces its origins to an agricultural festival, and to this day Tu b'Shvat (which can be transliterated from the Hebrew ט״ו בשבט as Tu BiShvat, Tu BiShevat, Tu b'Shevat and other ways) celebrates fruit, nuts and other foods that grow in Israel, and the importance of connecting with the environment. Traditionally connected with this, the Torah describes the "seven species" (Shivat haMinim) of treasured fruits and grains associated with the Holy Land in Deuteronomy 8:8 when it describes the land of Israel as a "land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs and pomegranates, and land of olives for oil and [date] honey."
- Wheat (khitah in Hebrew)
- Barley (se'orah)
- Grapes (gefen, literally "vine" in Hebrew)
- Figs (te'enah)
- Pomegranates (rimon)
- Olives (zayit)
- Dates (tamar or d'vash, the latter of which is date honey)
History and Modern Observance
Tu b'Shvat literally means "the fifteenth of Shvat ", with Shvat being a 30-day month that runs in the January-February timeframe of the Western (Gregorian) calendar.
Tu b'Shvat is not mentioned in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) but rather described first in the Mishnah, or a compendium of Jewish Oral Law and cultural traditions that was compiled when Jews were sent into exile after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Interestingly, the date for the New Year of Trees was disputed by the famous rabbinical elders, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai favored the 1st of Shvat, while Hillel favored the 15th. The Talmudic rabbis favored the latter, naturally.
According to Mosaic commandment, the fruit from trees are not supposed to be cultivated during their first 3 years of bearing fruit, and the 4th year's fruit must be given as a tithe (Leviticus 19:23-24). From the fifth year and beyond, the tree's fruits may be eaten freely. Tu b'Shvat is the day you count tree years by, so you can begin eating from a fig tree, for example, when five Tu b'Shvats have passed.
Tu b'Shvat was traditionally celebrated more in the Sephardic world (Spain, North Africa and Middle East) rather than the Ashkenazi world (Central and Eastern Europe), probably because fruit were more widely available in these warmer climates. However, nowadays, in Israel, a relatively warm climate with plenty of fruit year-round, and with worldwide distribution of fruit even during winter months in the Northern Hemisphere, Tu b'Shvat is enjoying a resurgence of interest among world Jewry. (It's also due to its increasing emphasis on environmentalism, which I'll get to a bit later)
In the 17th century, Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) led by Isaac Luria of Tzfat created a seder (religious dinner) modeled on the traditional Passover seder. This tradition celebrated the Kabbalah symbol the sephirot , or Tree of Life. Kabbalists believe fruit should be eaten in the following order, in order to strengthen the Tree of Life:
- fruits and nuts which must be peeled, like bananas and pistachios
- fruits which have inedible pits, like dates, olives and apricots
- fruits which can be eaten whole, like apples, strawberries and figs
Kabbalists also drink 4 glasses of wine that go from white to red (so the first glass is all white, the 2nd half-red, half-white, the 3rd mostly red, and the final glass is all red but a tiny splash of white).
Some Hasidic Jews either pickle or candy their etrog (a bizarre-looking citrus) from Sukkot, and eat it on Tu b'Shvat.
Modern Ecological Dimension
A holiday that revered the fruits of nature in Israel, it's Tu b'Shvat that has become the modern remembrance of our obligation as Jews to take care of and repair the world (tikkun olam ), the natural world, in this case.
In Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide, Jews plant trees on Tu b'Shvat as a symbolic act of environmental renewal. You can also plant trees in Israel via the Jewish National Fund.
Tu b'Shvat Recipes
Fellow Hubber Tal G Mel shared a great recipe for a Tu b'Shvat cake which sounds great. Full of dried fruit and nuts, it's a hearty fruit bread perfect for winter months, so if you have the ingredients on hand, don't feel you need to wait until the holiday to enjoy it.
Sephardic Jews will also often make a pilaf that integrates many of the "seven species" (shivat haMinim) fruits and nuts into a sweet-savory warm dish, also perfect for the cold, wet weather we normally experience in the Northern Hemisphere during this time of year.
Here's another recipe that can be served either cold or at room temperature, that incorporates all seven species:
Shivat haMinim Salad for Tu b'Shvat
- 1 cup cooked wheat berries
- 1 cup cooked barley
- 1 cup diced/sliced dates (fresh or dried)
- 1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (or 1/4 cup pomegranate juice)
- 1/2 cup grapes (or 1/4 cup raisins)
- 1 cup diced/sliced fresh figs (or 1/2 cup diced dried figs)
- 1/4 cup champagne or red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons honey (or date syrup or molasses if you want to make it really authentic!)
Combine all in a large glass bowl, cover, and leave for at least a few hours to marinate in the refrigerator or on your countertop. Serves 6-8 people.
Tu b'Shvat Eco Seder in San Francisco
A friend and I went to the 4th annual Tu b'Shvat Eco Seder in San Francisco this year, and really enjoyed ourselves. Held at the Women's Building in the Mission, there were probably about 300 attendees, all of whom enjoyed the food, wine, dancing and merriment.